Highlights of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River
Ya gotta do it to know it. But every river has its own particular rhythm: a unique succession of rapids, widening and narrowings of the canyon or gorge, inflow of tributaries, plus other attractions along the way. What's the Middle Fork like? Perhaps the reason the Middle Fork is so famous is the incredible variety that it offers. Fantastic hiking trails, numerous hot springs, lots of fun Cass III-IV rapids and much more. Here's an opinionated rundown of the highlights...
Most people put in at Boundary Creek. If at all possible, it's good to arrive the night before to set up camp, orient yourself, talk to the ranger. If you're trying to run the river pre-season or even early in the season, the road may be closed due to snowpack. In this case you'll have to access the river by floating down Marsh Creek and portaging around Daggar Falls... or by flying into Indian Creek, a launch point 23 miles below Boundary Creek.
The Middle Fork at Boundary Creek is still an alpine stream. The canyon walls are covered by forest. The rapids start immediately, with a Class II about 30 yards below the boat ramp. Near-constant Class II-III whitewater continues for several miles. The first named rapid is Sulphur Slide, but there are plenty of trouble spots above this! You'll come to a big pool just above Sulphur Slide, a good chance to scout. Then on to Rams Horn and Hells Half Mile, which leads the unaware into the jaws of Velvet Falls, a deceptively huge hole that spans most of the river.
If you want a breather, a couple of good campsites, Big Bend and Trail Flat Camp, are coming up. Or you might want to take on Chutes Rapid, a Class III, and make camp at Rapid Camp or Elkhorn Camp.
Now some real challenges.. The aptly named Upper Powerhouse Rapid, a Class III, and the big daddy Powerhouse Rapids, a Class IV, churn away before you hit the 11-mile mark. The remains of Joe Bumps Cabin are near here. At about 12 miles, you'll find Scout Camp, and Sheepeater Hot Springs, one of the nicest campsites along the river. We're talking large, soft grassy flats and of course, hot springs.
At the 19-mile mark, you'll hit Dolly Lake, a still bend to the right with some good fishing. Rest up, because Snag Rapid, Cannon Rapid, and the ultra-turbulent Pistol Creek Rapid are coming right up. At 24 miles, you'll be near Indian Creek Landing Field Campground. This is the most popular take-off point at low water times, and is where President Carter started his float down the Middle Fork in 1978. Pungo Creek at 26 miles offers excellent fishing.
You'll start to notice several changes in the terrain around Marble Creek Rapid, which happens after the 30 mile mark. The forest is changing from sub-alpine forest to grasses and brush, due to lower elevation and less moisture. And the area is also still recovering from overgrazing during the gold-mining era, more than a century ago (makes you think about the overgrazing that is still going on in many of our public lands...) The rock here is younger, and erodes differently than the rock upstream; the canyon widens and the sky opens up. At about 32 miles, you'll find Sunflower Hot Springs, a hot spring for the shower set, with hot water cascading down rocks.
This is a lazy float portion of the trip. The next Class III rapids will be Jackass Rapids at the 36-mile mark. Loon Creek enters the river after the 48-mile mark. This is the site of the most popular hot spring on the river, a log-lined tub the size of two big jacuzzis. A starlit soak is truly heaven on earth. Gold was discovered here in 1869, and this is the location of the Chinese mining camp that played a pivotal role in the Sheepeater War of 1879.
At Grouse Creek Rapids look up, and up, and up. 7,000-foot rock pinnacles will be towering overhead. Magnificent.
A few more miles, and you'll hit Tappen Falls, a rapid-fire succession of four rapids over the stretch of a mile. Near 63 miles, you'll hit Aparejo Point Rapid. This is near where Captain Bernard's Force crossed the Middle Fork during the Sheepeater Campaign. Indian rock drawings can be found on the bluff above the river.
The gateway to the Impassable Canyon comes into view at around the 66-mile mark. The Impassable Canyon got its name not because you can't float through it, but because it's too narrow for a trail. Haystack Rapids hits at the 68-mile mark, then in another couple of miles, Jack Creek Rapid, followed by Little Pine Creek Rapid. At the high rock wall near the 76-mile mark, you'll be riding some fine standing waves.
Near Waterfall Creek two canyons converge, stirring up some strong and temperamental winds. Waterfall Creek Rapid is an excellent Class III rapid. Just a little farther ahead is Big Creek, where the U.S. Army tried chasing down the Sheepeater Indians. This is a good place to land, if you can, and spend a couple days taking advantage of two very interesting hikes. The first is the four-mile walk up Big Creek to Soldier Bar Landing Strip. At one end of the landing strip is a memorial gravesite of Private Harry Eagan, the only fatality of the Sheepeater Campaign.
A trail parallels the river from Boundary Creek to Big Creek for some 75 miles. You can enjoy great hiking from almost all the camps along the river by using this trail, which also connects to other trails leading up side streams. Every camp on the Middle Fork offers something special, whether it's hiking, Indian rock art sites, hot springs, quiet swimming holes, or fishing. Fishing on the Middle Fork is legendary and it's not uncommon to catch and release over 50 cutthroat trout in a day. (Idaho fishing license required; catch and release with single barbless hooks on artificial flies or lures only.)
As you proceed downstream from Waterfall Creek, you are floating through the exposed granite cliffs of the Idaho batholith, the nation's largest monolith of granite. The scenery will remind you of Yosemite Valley. Your neck will be sore from looking up at the soaring cliffs stabbing into the cobalt sky.
After Elk Bar Rapid, you'll hit Veil Rapid at the 80-mile mark. Go through the rapid, park your boat, and take the hike up to Veil Falls. No questions, just do it. The view from the falls is incomparable, and there are many, many Indian pictographs. This is a sacred site, and there is no wonder why. Just wonder.
You'll be hitting Wall Creek, Porcupine Rapids, Redside Rapids, and the renowned Weber Rapids in quick order. Weber Rapids is no joke; the first recorded drowning by a professionally led group happened here.
Mist Falls flows down into the river at the 83-mile mark, right when you're going through the Mist Fall Rapid.
The next major challenges are the Upper and Lower Cliffside Rapids, in the 88-mile range. The Class IV Rubber Rapids was named after the way it'll bounce your boat like a rubber ball if given half a chance. Funny image, but no joke... You'll know Devil's Tooth Rapid by the fact that the river will have dropped out of sight. The next two Class III rapids are House Rock Rapid and Jump Off Joe Rapid.
The river starts to calm down after Goat Creek Rapid. The last whitewater occurs near the 96-mile mark. From there it's a lazy float 'till you hit the Main Salmon. Most parties take out at Cache Bar.
You made it!
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication